NOV 17, 2021 8:28 AM PST

Black Friday: A Shopper's Heaven or Hell?

WRITTEN BY: Mia Wood

Got your sleeping bag, thermos, and snacks? Check! Got your place in line on the cold, hard cement outside the box store doors? Check! Freezing your patootie off as you wait all night long with a gazillion other people? Check! Got your running shoes on so you’re ready to join the stampede when those doors open at 5:00 AM? CHECK! 

Who does this? What could motivate someone to whack another shopper with a Crock-Pot or attack a fellow shopper so they can grab that last television on the shelf? It’s Black Friday, folks, the day after Thanksgiving when stores offer major discounts. And it’s looking more and more like every day ending in “y” is fit for Black Friday deals – in stores and, thanks to the pandemic, online. 

The obvious motivation for braving uncomfortable conditions and throngs of aggressive people is the discount. Indeed, half of Americans enter the fray on “the busiest shopping day of the year.” What about the other half? I mean, those of us who stay home to sleep off stuffing and pumpkin pie like good deals, too, right?

According to goal theory, shoppers generally fall into one of two types: They either prioritize completing tasks or seek social connections. You might think that task completers are going to suit up for Black Friday, looking to get what they came for as quickly as possible, single-mindedly focused on their goal: Get in, get the goods, and get out! By contrast, then, you might think those who enjoy shopping with others seek genuine social interaction, and so would avoid the Black Friday cattle call at all costs. But no, it’s actually the opposite: The task-oriented shopper eschews events like Black Friday, while the social shopper has set up camp on store’s sidewalk by midnight, Black Friday morning.

Research has shown that the connection social shoppers want is actually more like ambiance or background noise — having other people around — rather than engagement. The task-oriented shopper, on the other hand, finds crowds maddening. So, the task-oriented shopper is less likely to join the Black Friday stampede than is the social shopper. Field theory helps explain this distinction.

According to field theory, one’s conception of personal space plays a role in attitudes toward shopping. So, the task-oriented shopper is going to view crowds as obstacles to achieving the goal — they need something like an air moat around them to keep others at bay. The more people around them, the more stress they feel. Those who don’t need as big a buffer have the opposite response; they find crowds, and what amounts to competition for goods, exciting.

Knowing what sort of shopper you are can help you reduce shopping-related stress, if not eliminate it altogether. In addition, understanding shopping momentum can improve your resistance to behaviors like impulse buying. For example, “limited time offer” deals generate anticipatory regret — shoppers buy because they worry about regretting not having done so, and Black Friday discounts are presented as extraordinarily good deals. That first purchase apparently generates psychological momentum to continue shopping — and buying unrelated products. 

Tactics to avoid the Black Friday abyss include making ‘precommitments,’ a mechanism for effectively eliminating a future choice. So, instead of shopping on Black Friday, maybe take a nice long walk or a nap. Both will feel good and won’t cost you a dime!

Sources: People MagazineABC NewsCNNBusiness InsiderEncyclopedia BritannicaAmerican Psychological AssociationCNBCAssociation for Consumer ResearchMotivation and EmotionUniversity of Chicago PressJournal of Marketing ResearchJournal of Economic Behavior and Marketing ResearchFrontiers in Neuroscience

About the Author
  • I am a philosophy professor and writer with a broad range of research interests.
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